In the first of what will be a series of meetings centered on redrawing the district boundaries for the Martinez City Council, early sentiment has favored establishing an independent commission to create a map, with no direct City Council involvement.

California’s various county supervisorial, school board, city council and other elected-official district boundaries must be redrawn using updated population information based on the 2020 Census. These various redistricting efforts have an October deadline, pushed back from August by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Martinez was among the earliest cities to change its City Council elections from five members elected at-large to a system in which only the mayor would still be elected at-large, and the other four council members would represent geographical districts.

The move by officials in Martinez and other California cities and counties was driven by demands by Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman that elected bodies make that change or face lawsuits for violating the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. That act asserts local at-large voting systems are discriminatory if they “impair the ability of a protected class … to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence the outcome of an election.”

That “protected class,” as defined by Shenkman, is Latinos, whom he has said would have more voting influence in districts with intact Latino neighborhoods. The Martinez City Council then adopted council district boundaries drawn specifically to give each of the four districts a section of downtown and of the waterfront area. Many other Bay Area cities, school districts and special districts soon followed suit.

The city was sued in November 2018 by two residents, Felix Sanchez and Nancy Noonan, who contended that map “cracks the Latino community, dividing Latino voters nearly equally between each of the four districts.”

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Charles Treat in January 2020 ruled the city’s district boundaries did not need to be changed, as they were legally created before Assembly Bill 849 was passed in September 2019 to bolster protections against boundary gerrymandering.

Treat did say, though, that the Martinez boundary lines were “about as uncompact and barely contiguous as geographically possible.”

A driver behind legislation

At the Martinez redistricting workshop last week, resident Dan Barrows told the council that the 2018 Martinez redistricting effort, specifically, helped spur the AB 849 changes.

Councilman Mark Ross added that the redistricting likely hurt Latinos’ political clout in Martinez, in part because Latino residences are widely scattered throughout the city.

“The aim of it was to empower Latino voters,” Ross said. “The result is, by trying to split everything fair and equally, it diluted (their power).”

Councilwoman Lara DeLaney asked a city consultant helping with redistricting how the city could comply with the California Voting Rights Act — which prohibits “at-large” elections that impair the ability of a “protected class,” like Latinos — and at the same time comply with federal codes that expressly prohibit empowering specific groups.

That consultant, attorney Chris Skinnell, told DeLaney that Martinez, or any city, will have to do a sensible balancing act between the two stances and focus on the basics of redistricting.

“One of these days the Supreme Court is going to need to sort it out,” Skinnell said.

DeLaney also said the city will have to be wary of inadvertently creating “economic divisions” by grouping too many low- or upper-income residences in any of the four districts.

Most public commenters at last week’s workshop told the council they favor creating an independent redistricting commission, as opposed to a commission of a different format that would give the council more influence.

That, a woman named Gretchen told the council, will help Martinez move away from being “the poster child for how badly districts can be drawn.”

Ross agreed, saying he has always favored an independent commission over other commission structures.